CHAPTER XII. BATTLES IN THE AIR
Ever since the days of Jules Verne no theme has proved so popular in fiction as fighting in the air. It was a subject which lent itself to vivid imagination and spirited picturesque portrayal. Discussion might be provoked, but it inevitably proved abortive, inasmuch as there was a complete absence of data based upon actual experience. The novelist was without any theory: he avowedly depended upon the brilliance of his imagination. The critic could only theorise, and no matter how dogmatic his reasonings, they were certainly as unconvincing as those of the object of his attack.
But truth has proved stranger than fiction. The imaginative pictures of the novelist have not only been fulfilled but surpassed, while the theorising critic has been utterly confounded. Fighting in the air has become so inseparable from the military operations of to-day that it occurs with startling frequency. A contest between hostile aeroplanes, hundreds of feet above the earth, is no longer regarded as a dramatic, thrilling spectacle: it has become as matter-of-fact as a bayonet melee between opposed forces of infantry.
A duel in the clouds differs from any other form of encounter. It is fought mercilessly: there can be no question of quarter or surrender. The white flag is no protection, for the simple reason that science and mechanical ingenuity have failed, so far, to devise a means of taking an aeroplane in tow. The victor has no possible method of forcing the vanquished to the ground in his own territory except driving. If such a move be made there is the risk that the latter will take the advantage of a critical opportunity to effect his escape, or to turn the tables. For these reasons the fight is fought to a conclusive finish.
To aspire to success in these combats waged in the trackless blue, speed, initiative, and daring are essential. Success falls to the swift in every instance. An aeroplane travelling at a high speed, and pursuing an undulating or irregular trajectory is almostimpossible to hit from the ground, as sighting is so extremely difficult. Sighting from another machine, which likewise is travelling rapidly, and pursuing an irregular path, is far more so. Unless the attacker can approach relatively closely to his enemy the possibility of hitting him is extremely remote. Rifle or gun-fire must be absolutely point blank.
When a marauding aeroplane is espied the attacking corsair immediately struggles for the strategical position, which is above his adversary. To fire upwards from one aeroplane at another is virtually impossible, at least with any degree of accuracy. The marksman is at a hopeless disadvantage. If the pilot be unaccompanied and entirely dependent upon his own resources he cannot hope to fire vertically above him, for the simple reason that in so doing he must relinquish control of his machine. A rifle cannot possibly be sighted under such conditions, inasmuch as it demands that the rifleman shall lean back so as to obtain control of his weapon and to bring it to bear upon his objective. Even if a long range Mauser or other automatic pistol of the latest type be employed, two hands are necessary for firing purposes, more particularly as, under such conditions, the machine, if not kept under control, is apt to lurch and pitch disconcertingly.
Even a colleague carried for the express purpose of aggression is handicapped. If he has a machinegun, such as a Maxim or a mitrailleuse, it is almost out of the question to train it vertically. Its useful vertical training arc is probably limited to about 80 degrees, and at this elevation the gunner has to assume an extremely uncomfortable position, especiauy upon an aeroplane, where, under the best of circumstances, he is somewhat cramped.
On the other hand the man in the aeroplane above holds the dominating position. He is immediately above his adversary and firing may be carried out with facility. The conditions are wholly in his favour. Sighting and firing downwards, even if absolutely vertically, imposes the minimum physical effort, with the result that the marksman is able to bring a steadier aim upon his adversary. Even if the machine be carrying only the pilot, the latter is able to fire upon his enemy without necessarily releasing control of his motor, even for a moment.
If he is a skilled sharpshooter, and the exigencies demand, he can level, sight, and fire his weapon with one hand, while under such circumstances an automatic self-loading pistol can be trained upon the objective with the greatest ease. If the warplane be carrying a second person, acting as a gunner, the latter can maintain an effective rifle fusillade, and, at the same time, manipulate his machine-gun with no great effort, maintaining rifle fire until the pilot, by manoeuvring, can enable the mitrailleuse or Maxim to be used to the greatest advantage.
Hence the wonderful display of tactical operations when two hostile aeroplanes sight one another. The hunted at first endeavours to learn the turn of speed which his antagonist commands. If the latter is inferior, the pursued can either profit from his advantage and race away to safety, or at once begin to manoeuvre for position. If he is made of stern stuff, he attempts the latter feat without delay. The pursuer, if he realises that he is out classed in pace, divines that his quarry will start climbing if he intends to show fight, so he begins to climb also.
Now success in this tactical move will accrue to the machine which possesses the finest climbing powers, and here again, of course, speed is certain to count. But, on the other hand, the prowess of the aviator - the human element once more - must not be ignored. The war has demonstrated very convincingly that the personal quality of the aviator often becomes the decisive factor.